Three Crosses and Silhoutted Person in Prayer at Sunrise
Conversion, Lent, Metanoia

Lent: Are You Giving Up or Taking Up?


So it’s lent.  The question used to be: What are you giving up for lent?  Now, people are asking: What are you going to do for lent?  Instead of “giving something up,” many suggest we “take something up.”

The thing is that both of these questions can be good ones, and in both cases, our responses can miss the point.

The term “lent” comes from a word meaning “spring” or “springtime.”  In the south, the whole of spring is a beautiful season of warmth, light, and growth.  In the north, it’s often drab and dreary: muddy, cold, and barren trees well into early May.  Many a blizzard has fallen after March 20th.

Regardless of where you live, the idea of spring is the season of rebirth, promise, and hope.  Spring is when we see nature go from death-to-new-life.

Lent is about that death-to-new life transformation of springtime.  Like Jesus’ time in the desert, it is a 40 day spiritual journey.

Interesting aside:  Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days; Moses for 40 years; Noah endured the rain for 40 days…  Ever wonder why 40?  For the ancient peoples, the number “4” carried the significance of an “earthly” meaning.  We have four seasons, the four directions (North, South, East, and West), the four elements of the body, and so on.  The number “10” means “a great many,” and the more zero’s the greater the many.  So the number 40 signifies a great many days/years, all over the earth.  The number “3” signifies divinity (not just the Trinity, but think about all the times when people in Scripture were selected in groups of threes).  When “3” and “4” –heaven and earth– come together, it signifies perfection and completion.  Numerically, this happens in two ways: 3 + 4 = 7 and 3 x 4 = 12.  Thus, 7 days of Creation, forgiving 7 times 70 times, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles… a perfectly, complete number.

Getting back to Lent… Lent is literally a 40 day period, but since it’s 6 1/2 weeks, it doesn’t look like 40 days on the calendar.  There are 46 days from Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, but the six Sundays during Lent are not counted because we dedicate Sundays to celebrating the Resurrection.

The idea of lent is to spend 40 days on a spiritual journey of transformation and growth.  It’s about inner-conversion, or metanoia (in Greek), turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel.

That principle–spiritual growth–should be at the heart of whatever lenten promise we make.  Here’s a great starting point: Is there some sinful practice that you can (and should) give up?  Do that.  

For many of us, those sinful practices are embedded in our daily lives.  It’s harder to nail down a promise to be less judgmental or distracted, so we choose something concrete like “giving up soda” (or candy, or wine, or Facebook). There is nothing wrong with giving something up for lent. Especially not if we approach it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.  Take “giving up soda,” for example:

  •  If you’re a person who is addicted to soda, give up the vice of the addiction through the practice of abstinence, with the hope that you will ultimately be able to better practice the virtue of temperance (moderation, self-control) in the joy of Easter.
  • Maybe you’re not addicted, but rather you’re a person who enjoys soda… then anytime you might find yourself wanting a soda, use that “desire” as a reminder to pray.

This approach to lenten sacrifice reflects the ancient Christian practice of asceticism which involves self-denial and abstaining from worldly pleasures.  Asceticism is an opportunity to take something that we may be somewhat attached to (like candy, or soda, or television, or electronic devices, or Facebook) and redirect that obsessive energy towards God.  Ascetic practices serve to open us to new life in God.

One way things go awry is when we focus only on the torture of denial without the promise of hope, joy, and transformation of Easter.  We are a people of the Resurrection, not a people of Good Friday.  It is one thing to remember Jesus’ sacrifice and share in Christ’s suffering.  But “giving something up” misses the point if it doesn’t help us to grow spiritually.

The “taking something up” crowd also needs to keep in mind the purpose of spiritual growth.  Take up a practice of reading Scripture, or praying the rosary, or attending daily mass.  Do something positive in your prayer life, for sure, but do it as a matter of inner-conversion not as a self-improvement project.  Make the attempt to integrate this positive behavior into your daily life permanently.

So maybe the better question to ask is: Whether giving up or taking up: how are you growing in faith and spirituality this lent?

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Julie Dienno-Demarest Visit Website
Spiritual Director, Author, Educator
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  • Sara Fontana

    Awesome explanation Julie! I love the Matthew Kelly idea of choosing to do one thing that will help you be a better version of yourself (i.e. holy) How is it helping you be more mindful of God?

  • bonnie

    I love it. There were times when I gave something up only to have failed and then feeling awful because I was so weak and ruined my lent sacrifice. Now I try to incorporate something positive. …reading scriptures more, saying the rosary more, going to the Stations of the cross. I still give up something, but taking up something, gives me something more.

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